Google just opened up to a limited audience its very interesting communications experiment called Wave (news stories). Our hands-on evaluation: there's a lot to like. It really is a more contemporary take on communications. But it will knock many e-mail users off-balance.
Even Wave's own Software Engineering Manager Lars Rasmussen told me, "It takes a little getting used to," and, "We're still learning how to use it." Imagine how everyone else will feel.
If you want to try Wave, you'll have to wait. Google is making access to the service available to some developers and press, but full availability will not be until "later this year," Google says. The version we tested was very raw, still in development. Many features were not implemented and the system threw us a few errors. But the framework and philosophy is clear to see, and that's what this evaluation is based on.
Wave is real-time e-mail. What that means is that when you're writing a reply to a message (or "wave") that you receive in the system, the recipient can see what you are typing as you type it. It will come as a relief to most that the real-time feature can be disabled if you click on the "draft" button (not working in my trial) while writing. But real-time visibility is the default.
You can put your replies anywhere in the message. You can also do this in regular e-mail, but in Wave, your comments are easy to pick out since the app bounds reply text in colored boxes with authors' pictures embedded in them. Those of us who prefer to reply to e-mail messages at the end (or the beginning) and not piecemeal can just reply as usual. But when you want to write a surgical point-by-point reply to a message, Wave makes it easy.
You can drop pictures straight into Wave messages (a neat trick in a browser-based app, made possible by Google Gears), and smart assistants will let you convert addresses to maps, automatically fix spelling errors, and expand contact names.
But it's the reply-anywhere feature combined with the real-time function that's most interesting. It makes Wave the first useful blend of e-mail and instant messaging that I've seen. Unlike Google's previous attempt to meld the two communications modes into one app (Gmail has Google Talk in its sidebar), this one really works. An asynchronous e-mail conversation between two people can can stay that way, or it become real-time when both parties are online, and the dialog stays in place in the e-mail for later viewing. Switching between the e-mail and IM mode is seamless. In fact, the concept of the two different modes vanishes in Wave.
Wave's message handling really shines when a conversation is between more than two people. Using Wave and its specific, color-coded replies, a group of people can have an actual discussion in e-mail, in real-time if wanted, without getting bogged down in long multi-message discussions--or worse, in threads that end up forking so that different people are discussing different things.
The Wave in-box pane shows you when there are new messages in your threads by bolding the subject lines, and when somebody is actively typing in a wave, you can see the text come in live, in the two-line preview every message gets. That's really cool, although it can be overwhelming.
Speaking of being overwhelmed, the first time I had two people replying to me in an individual message at the same time, in different places in it, my head almost exploded. It's a lot of raw information coming it at once, and it's very different from the old e-mail or the instant message experience.
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